One of the most enjoyable things about house hunting is getting the opportunity to marvel at other people’s decorative tastes. However, what do you do if you find an almost perfect property whose previous owners have ruthlessly stripped out original features?
The answer is architectural salvage, the ‘boutique’ end of the demolition salvage industry. Architectural salvage includes heavy materials such as reclaimed bricks, stone flags and roof tiles. Then there are interior fixtures: baths, sinks, fire grates and surrounds, reclaimed floorboards, doors, fine mouldings, even stained glass. Fittings such as locks, bolts and knobs are easy to find and from time to time more exotic items such as weathervanes, church fittings or statues even turn up.
In the past, the trade has suffered from a dubious image, with sometimes well-founded suspicions about the origin of items on sale. Many conservation officers have become rightly concerned that this could contribute to the destruction of period buildings. The high value of salvageable materials in short supply, for example Cotswold stone slates, has undoubtedly resulted in the loss of many vernacular buildings, such as field barns.
The architectural salvage trade is fighting back to improve its image. Many businesses subscribe to an alert scheme called SALVO. This scheme notifies businesses of items stolen or taken from listed buildings without consent, and operates a Code of Practice for dealers.
So how do you decide what reclaimed items to use? As Elle Decoration and World of Interiors often show, dramatic sculptural pieces can look wonderful in modern interiors. However, my tip is to stick to those that are appropriate to the style and period of your house. If you live in a 1930s house some Art Deco-style stained glass or Bakelite knobs could be perfect, a Victorian fireplace will always be out of context.
I would strongly recommend that homeowners ask for expert advice, to avoid pitfalls. For example, second hand bricks may not be frost proof and could perish in the wrong location. In some cases salvaged materials may also be more expensive than new ones and it may be worth considering using reclaimed tiles or slates on your prominent front-facing roof slopes, with new ones at the rear.
Architectural salvage yards can be a wonderful source of inspiration as well as a fascinating afternoon out, but it is always best to visit yards armed with a clear idea of what you are looking for, and a tape measure, before taking the plunge. Remember - if in doubt seek professional advice on the practicality and appropriateness of your proposals.
Head of Architecture and Building Consultancy
Colin is a chartered architect, based in Oxford. He provides a wide range of professional services, including design, project management and expert witness, with a particular emphasis on historic...